Indulge in cacao, raw and dark chocolate, where savory taste meets remarkable health benefits. This comprehensive exploration delves into these beloved treats’ surprising and scientifically backed advantages. From their rich antioxidant content to their heart-healthy properties, cacao and its derivatives are a delight for the taste buds and a luxury for wellness. Whether you’re a chocolate aficionado or a health enthusiast, discover how these varieties of chocolate can contribute to a healthier lifestyle, enhance your mood and offer protective benefits against various health concerns.
The origins of cacao
The original name of the cacao plant is Theobroma cacao, where Theobroma (from Latin) means the food of the Gods. The word cacao is derived from an Aztec word cacahuatl, meaning the bean of the cocoa tree. Thus, the full name Theobroma cacao leads to a powerful statement: cacao is the food of the gods. The high valuation and reputation of cacao come from its unique ingredients known to have aphrodisiac properties (e.g., methylxanthine, theobromine, phenylethylamine and anandamide).
Cacao is the key ingredient in chocolate. Due to its powerful ingredients, chocolate is also known as a “love drug,” which can metaphorically open up the heart, decrease stress and increase happiness.
Chocolate was also used from the 16th century to the early 20th century as a medicine to alleviate many symptoms ranging from fatigue to digestive issues.(1) The term chocolate originates from the Aztec word xocolatl, which means “bitter water.” Chocolate has been consumed since at least 460 AD, made from the beans from the Theobroma cacao tree native to Central America and northern South America.(2)
What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?
Cacao refers to any cacao products that are “raw” (unheated). These include cacao nibs, raw cacao powder and cacao in raw chocolate. “Cacao” is derived from Olmec and the subsequent Mayan languages (kakaw).
Cocoa is often used in traditional chocolate. It refers to cacao beans (or powder) roasted at high temperatures. Roasting depletes the antioxidant activity in cocoa by 10–60 %, depending on the roasting time and temperature. The words cacao or cocoa are often used interchangeably in scientific publications and the ingredient lists of food products such as chocolate.(3)
Commercial milk chocolate is not optimal. It contains only low levels of cocoa and other ingredients such as sugar, milk and even gluten. A healthier option (raw chocolate) has recently become a popular alternative for commercial chocolate products. Raw chocolate is made of (mostly) unroasted cacao beans, cacao butter (Theobroma oil) and low levels of some sweetener that is not white sugar (such as stevia, cane sugar, coconut sugar, xylitol or lucuma).
Beneficial nutrients in dark and raw chocolate and their impact on brain function and mental health
- Cacao is high in bioactive flavonoids (such as flavanol) found in foods such as tea, red grapes and berries. Flavonoids are linked to various health benefits through their high antioxidant capacity and beneficial effect on cell signaling in the brain, which can improve thinking speed, memory and cognitive function and protect the brain from inflammation and dementia.(4-5)
- Dietary flavonoids and antioxidants in dark chocolate are linked to enhanced memory and slowed mental decline in old age. In some studies, cocoa is even referred to as a nutraceutical (i.e., a food product that shows extra health benefits such as preventing a disease).(6)
- Flavanol-rich cacao has also been shown to increase brain blood flow and oxygen consumption and stimulate nerve cell growth.(7)
- Cacao contains methylxanthines such as theobromine and caffeine, which are stimulants and can boost alertness, reaction times and psychomotor functions, especially in a tired state or after sleep deprivation.(8)
- Cacao contains β-phenylethylamine (PEA), which acts as a neurotransmitter (a trace amine)(9) in the brain, much like dopamine and serotonin, mediating mood-enhancing effects similar to a runner’s high.(10) It also possesses neuroprotective effects in the brain.(11)
- Cacao contains anandamide, an endocannabinoid and a neurotransmitter, which affects the endocannabinoid system in the brain.(12) Therefore, it can relieve anxiety and promote euphoria.(13)
- Note: Processed cocoa (dark chocolate) has only trace amounts of anandamide compared to raw cacao (or raw chocolate).
- The word Ananda (cf. anandamide) is from Sanskrit and means bliss or joy.
Other diverse health benefits of cacao
Cacao, raw chocolate and dark chocolate are known for their health benefits, many of which have been supported by scientific research.
- Cardiovascular Health: Studies have shown that the flavonoids in dark chocolate and cacao can improve heart health by lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the heart and brain, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.(14-15)
- Improved Cholesterol Profile: Consuming dark chocolate has been linked to improved cholesterol profiles, such as increasing HDL (good cholesterol) and decreasing oxidative LDL (bad cholesterol) levels in the blood.(16-17)
- Blood Sugar and Insulin Sensitivity: Some research suggests that dark chocolate may improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of diabetes.(18-19)
- Skin Health: The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate may also benefit the skin. The flavonoids can protect against sun damage, improve blood flow and increase skin density and hydration.(20)
- Reduced Inflammation: Cacao has anti-inflammatory properties, which can be beneficial in reducing inflammation in the body, potentially helping to mitigate some chronic inflammatory conditions and even reduce pain.(21)
- Gut Health: Dark chocolate can also influence gut health by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which is essential for overall health.(22-24)
- Potential Cancer Prevention: Some studies suggest that the antioxidants in cacao and dark chocolate might have cancer-protective properties, though more research is needed in this area.(25)
Choosing high-quality chocolate and cacao at the market
- Choose high-quality raw chocolate (cacao) when possible
- Choose chocolate with at least 70 % cacao content. This assures a low sugar and high antioxidant content in the product. As a rule of thumb, always check that cocoa/ cacao is the first ingredient in the list.
- Use single-origin, organic chocolate to avoid artificial sweeteners and added chemicals.
- The lower the sugar content, the better.
- High-quality chocolate is free from milk and gluten.
- Sometimes manufacturers add trans fats (e.g., Hydrogenated oil) to chocolate to improve the shell life; avoid such chocolates since they have harmful health effects (especially for the cardiovascular system).(26)
- Avoid alkalized or Dutch-processed dark chocolate because these processes reduce the levels of antioxidants in the chocolate (check the ingredients list for “cocoa processed with alkali”).(27)
- Avoid dark chocolate brands with a high content of cadmium and lead.
- Avoid chocolate made with commercial cacao beans from Latin America if you want to diminish cadmium intake (single origin and organic certified are okay).(28)
- Avoid chocolate made with cacao beans originating from Nigeria if you want to diminish lead intake.(29)
In summary, cacao, raw chocolate, and dark chocolate offer a unique blend of health benefits beyond their irresistible taste. These chocolate varieties, especially in darker, purer forms, can significantly contribute to cardiovascular health, mental well-being and skin protection. Their rich antioxidant profile and anti-inflammatory properties further reinforce their status as a beneficial addition to a health-conscious diet. While moderation is key due to their caloric content, including these chocolates in your diet can be a delightful way to support overall health and wellness and cheer-up your day in a wonderful way :)
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